Why did black people riot in “the long, hot summer of 1967,” when deadly civil disorders erupted in Newark, Detroit and many other U.S. cities? The Kerner Commission was tasked with answering that question by President Lyndon B. Johnson. After a seven-month investigation the panel’s report suggested that the main cause of the rampant urban violence wasn’t black anger, but rather white racism. As the report acknowledged, white society “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
That’s not what Johnson wanted to hear. He wanted a celebration of his Great Society programs, whose primary goal was to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. Unfortunately, much of the funding needed for that noble cause would ultimately be diverted to wage a useless war in Vietnam.
The Kerner Report: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders not only became a paperback bestseller, but also inspired critical discussion led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. Unfortunately, both civil rights champions were assassinated in 1968, soon after its publication, and any hope of seriously mitigating, let alone eradicating, poverty died with them.
Former Democratic Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, the sole living member of the Kerner Commission, and Alan Curtis coauthored a new Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation study. Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report details how the situation of black and brown people today, along with a growing number of white people, has deteriorated further.